Recently, one of the guys I ski with was conveying to me how talented one of our mutual friends is at downhill mountain biking. “Yeah she is so sick,” he said, “Sometimes when we’re out riding she will be right on my tail, chasing me down the trail.” He’s a great skier, and while I haven’t mountain biked with him before, I’d assume that his confidence on skis translates pretty fluidly to a bike, so I was stoked to hear his high praise of her skills.
Excited to pass the compliment on, I relayed his description of their bike rides to her over beers a few weeks later. She laughed and leaned towards me, whispering, “Yeah, actually, I have to brake for him.” While the spirit of his praise wasn’t lost on us – his compliment was genuine – we were tickled by the idea that, in his mind, he set the standard for female excellence. If a girl could keep up with him, then she must be pretty awesome. Little did he know, not only could the girl riding behind him keep up, he was slowing her down.
I’m not retelling this story to berate him for this oversight, because in this tense world of treading on eggshells, intentions do matter in my mind. Rather, I think the difference in their perspectives presents an example of the way that society often gauges female success in terms of how well she can emulate male qualities or compete with male peers. Especially in the outdoor world it seems pretty rare that we compliment a woman on her achievements in their own right – more often her skill is translated in terms of male riders’ or skiers’ skills, who are assumed to represent the highest level of female achievement. The recognition of the possibility that a talented female athlete might be better than her male peers is uncommon, and in the case that her superiority is obvious, men often seem to make that dominance more palatable by acknowledging it within a joke.
When it comes to skiing, my mom and dad are the perfect example of this joking acknowledgment of a woman’s superiority by male observers. My mom grew up ski racing, and in any group of people she is usually the best skier by far. My dad is a confident skier and can keep up with anyone on the hill, but certainly provides no comparison point for the upper bound of my mom’s skill. This might sound harsh, but I would submit that it only sounds that way because we are so accustomed to operating under the assumption of male superiority, so it seems mean that I would point out that my mom is a better skier than my dad. Anyway, I digress. My dad recognizes and respects my mom’s talent in its own right, and doesn’t take any issue with acknowledging her superiority in skiing. He does however have to put up with a lot of grief from male peers (all of which, I would remind you, is well-meaning and well-taken) about Mom being a far better skier than he is.
The jokes mostly consist of comments about how his wife is skiing him into the ground or how all the women in his family are far better skiers, etc., which always make me laugh because the jokes make clear that the guy relaying them is only acknowledging that my mom surpasses Dad in skill, not the skill of the guy making the joke himself. In my head I’m smiling, thinking, yeah she’s probably skiing you into the ground, too, buddy. My dad seems to become somewhat of a scapegoat for dealing with my mom’s skiing superiority, allowing the guy to acknowledge that she is good, better than my dad even, without having to consider the fact that she might be better than everyone else, too. These joking comparisons to my dad also seem to downplay her achievement in a way. Rather than acknowledging outright that she is just an objectively awesome skier, they compare her to my dad and use the fact that she surpasses him as a way to tease him, despite the fact that his skills don’t serve as a good point of reference for how amazing she really is on her skis.
My point here is that we should not assume that men set the standard for success, nor do we have to characterize female achievement in terms of how well a woman can compete or keep up with her male peers. We risk setting the bar too low for everyone, regardless of gender, and through this reframing of female success, we reinforce the harmful idea that men are inherently more skilled, powerful, talented, able, etc. than are women.